Planning Commission endorses Sunflower Hill housing project

Also: Lighthouse Baptist School relocating to Hacienda, new city planning manager

Design rendering for the Sunflower Hill project on (future) Nevada Street includes a two-story, U-shaped apartment building facing a single-story community center. (Image courtesy of city of Pleasanton)

The Pleasanton City Council is poised to consider the proposed Sunflower Hill residential community for adults with special needs next month after the Planning Commission unanimously supported the project application last week.

The local nonprofit, in partnership with Satellite Affordable Housing Associates (SAHA), seeks to construct a two-story apartment building with 31 units, along with a community center, a central courtyard and other amenities, on a vacant parcel adjacent to a new neighborhood planned for the Irby Ranch site just outside downtown.

"This is a project the city has been hearing about for probably four or five years. At one time it was a dream, and now actually before us is a tangible application to build a real-live place and provide this community service," commission chair David Nagler said during the discussion Wednesday night at the Pleasanton Civic Center.

Sunflower Hill leaders, consisting largely of parents and family members of children and adults with special needs, hope their first-ever Pleasanton project, coupled with a project approved in Livermore, will help address the need for more housing for people with special needs in the Tri-Valley.

The nonprofit's concept has been endorsed by city officials, with the special-needs housing proposal serving as a key reason the City Council approved the 87-house neighborhood at Irby Ranch last year -- a development plan that included setting aside 1.64 acres for the future Sunflower Hill project.

The main apartment building is two stories, U-shaped around an interior courtyard, with one studio unit, 22 one-bedroom units and eight two-bedroom units -- giving the complex 39 beds in all. An onsite SAHA property manager will live in one of the two-bedroom apartments, and the studio will be occupied by a Sunflower Hill staff member as needed to provide support at the complex.

A 5,000-square-foot community center is proposed to sit across from the apartment building, complete with a multipurpose room, commercial kitchen, fitness room, craft room and administrative offices. The plans also call for a spa lounge area, bocce court, multi-use lawn, group outdoor seating and a convertible sport court.

Planning commissioners said Wednesday they were impressed by design changes made by Sunflower Hill's architects to enhance the building exteriors after some commissioners thought the early plans, presented during a project workshop in October, made the buildings appear too institutional for a neighborhood.

Those adjustments included new window trims, toned-down roof-lines and greater facade detailing, according to city associate planner Jennifer Hagen.

"I like the changes you've made. It's been a huge improvement," commission vice chair Greg O'Connor said. "I'm very pleased with what you've come back with."

The buildings consist of a farmhouse-type architecture inspired by the farm style historically associated with the old ranch site as well as designed to flow well with the architecture planned for the adjacent 87 houses in The Homestead at Irby Ranch development being built by Meritage Homes where Stanley Boulevard turns into First Street.

The Irby Ranch project application included setting aside a 1.64-acre portion of the property for the Sunflower Hill complex, fronting what will be the future Nevada Street extension.

That land was technically dedicated to the city for affordable housing, but all parties envisioned the project as a Sunflower Hill development for adults with special needs -- and the Pleasanton-based nonprofit signed an exclusive negotiating rights agreement with the city for the site.

"We really feel this is a partnership, a partnership with the city that is really going to set a standard, both for the state and for the nation, for what can be done to house individuals with special needs," Sunflower Hill board president Susan Houghton told the commission.

SAHA and Sunflower Hill have an agreement in place to form a new company, Sunflower Hill LLC at Irby Ranch, with the two entities serving as 51% (SAHA) to 49% (Sunflower Hill) partners, according to Houghton.

The affordability levels will include 20% of area median income (AMI) for the one-bedroom units and 60% AMI for the two-bedroom units that are designed as co-tenant apartments, she said.

When asked by Nagler about prospective funding for the project, Houghton said they are seeking Alameda County affordable housing bond funds and are preparing to apply for tax credits in the spring. "We think it's moving forward well," she added.

The city also agreed to commit up to $2.25 million, which includes Irby Ranch developer's $1 million contribution to city affordable housing, toward the potential Sunflower Hill project for special needs adults when approving the full Irby Ranch development in February 2017.

Following the half-hour discussion Wednesday, the commission voted 5-0 to recommend the council approve the Sunflower Hill project application. Commissioner Jack Balch recused himself from the debate because his father owns a home 384 feet from the project site.

City officials expect to bring the Sunflower Hill project to the council for consideration in February, according to community development director Gerry Beaudin.

In other business

* The commission approved a use permit to allow Lighthouse Baptist School to relocate to 5959 W. Las Positas Blvd., a two-story office building in the Hacienda Business Park at the corner of Coronado Lane that has been empty since a call center vacated the site nearly a decade ago, according to city staff.

The building was recently purchased by Ridgeview Hope Church -- formerly the Evangelical Free Church of Pleasanton -- with the intent of using the ground floor for the church and private school and the second floor for leasable office space.

The small private school operated the past 20 years at the former Evangelical Free Church site in Valley Trails, property the church sold to Ponderosa Homes to build a 36-home residential development there.

Lighthouse Baptist School, which offers in-person and online teaching for children in kindergarten through 12th grade, currently educates 22 students with three teachers, according to administrator Chris Rule. The use permit would allow the school to teach up to 60 students during the school day, plus maintain an after-school program.

The Hacienda Owners Association supported the project, but several neighboring property owners raised concerns about traffic and noise associated with the school, in light of what they reported seeing at nearby Hart Middle School and Pleasanton Bilingual Montessori Preschool.

The commission unanimously approved the project, finding the student drop-off/pick-up plan should alleviate traffic concerns, there's plenty of parking onsite and the proposed school -- even at maximum capacity -- would generate less traffic than the full office use that the building is currently zoned for.

* Wednesday marked the first meeting for Ellen Clark, the city's new deputy director of community development and planning manager.

Clark joined Pleasanton after working almost five years for the town of Moraga, including more than three years as its planning director. Educated at the University of Cambridge, Clark also has planning experience in the private sector and for the town of Mammoth Falls.

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